Michael Douglas for President! America's least typical movie star has another hit on his hands. Here, David Thomson studies an unusual career; while, right, Quentin Curtis examines Hollywood's relationship with the White House ALL THE PRESIDENT'S FILMS

HOW APPROPRIATE, how natural, that Michael Douglas should now - in his early fifties - be playing The American President. After all, in the last few years he has nearly cornered the market in harassed but essentially decent men caught in the cockpit of cultural confusion. He's had a lover who wouldn't give up on their affair (Fatal Attraction); he's been a cop screwing a chief suspect and waiting to see her reach for the ice pick (Basic Instinct); somehow he found his software in Demi Moore's hard drive (Disclosure); and ... well, why shouldn't he be just as adept reading the State of the Union or zapping the Libyans?

How stirring it must be for those associated with the movie - but how disconcerting for those who believe in the presidency - that the picture should be doing so well. As The American President opened in the US, the state had shut down because of an impasse over budget negotiations, while the public seemed gloomy and chastened that a candidate as promising as Colin Powell should have opted out of the race for the White House.

Presidential politics are beset by gridlock, disillusion and compromise. Few Americans reckon on being able to discharge their vote in November 1996 with confidence or enthusiasm. And then along comes Michael Douglas as a President, if not the President: brisk, handsome, urbane, charming, funny, dry and sincere, magically untired and undismayed by the remorseless persistence and hopelessness of the office. He's the kind of leader Americans reckon they deserve, a figment and a concoction, a photographed man who reads the script. But as Gore Vidal pointed out, what else does the real President have to do? Well, this one finds a new trick: he falls in love.

The American President, directed by Rob Reiner, is a very deft, satisfying entertainment, sure enough of itself to invoke the name and aura of Frank Capra. But it is founded on two white lies. One is that a President would have time to fall in love. For the movie is good enough to understand that falling in love takes time, patience, practice, application and even a surrender of the self, and self-importance. The other is that the electorate would be outraged or disturbed if an agreeable widower, such as Douglas presents, happened to fall in love with a single, attractive woman. The public would be tickled pink. Indeed, election strategists must leave the film resolved to seek out single men who can be elected on the platform of romantic yearning, and then introduced to a good woman about a year before re-election day. A love match is better than a tax cut or a bold adventure against scurvy Arabs. Americans are amiable people who wish for happiness in others. They can easily fall into the rationale that a leader sleeping the deep sleep of good sex is less likely to do something stupid and disastrous.

That's where Michael Douglas fits so well, for he has made an ideology out of romantic energy. Charm is the alpha and the omega of his politics. And it is altogether exhilarating, if somewhat alarming, to see how easily his screen charisma fills out the lofty rooms of the White House and the predicaments of the Leader of the Free World. After all, he is so much more plausible than Ronald Reagan. He's a star; the son of a star; and an authentic big shot.

IS HE a great actor, or even good? I don't think many are convinced in his favour. For those old enough to remember, his father, Kirk, seems more passionate, more driven, more neurotic, more complex ... more compelling? Though Michael is in certain ways - in the determined look he can muster, and the rising growl in his voice - very much the father's son, he has a softer, more modulated range.

There has been something like rivalry between them. Kirk was not much involved in the boy's upbringing, and Michael has always sworn by the gentler influence of his mother and his stepfather. But no one could ever ignore Kirk Douglas, especially not someone who saw the father's graven image appearing in his own softer face. Michael could not help but be a boy who knew his father was world famous: in Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, The Vikings, Paths of Glory and Spartacus. Imagine, at the age of 16 or so, seeing your father announcing, "I am Spartacus!" - a nearly naked gladiator fighting for his life, then leading the revolt of the slaves and ending up crucified! And being the producer of the movie! Michael may have mocked Dad's style of acting, and his total immersion in himself and his work. They may have argued and quarrelled. But the fact of the matter is that Michael has the same kind of self-belief on screen, without irony or mercy. And Michael has himself become a terrific producer of movies. Indeed, he may be one of those actors best defined as being natural producers. In other words, they're not just interested in their role but in the picture as a whole. The quality of energy in Michael Douglas is a willingness to take the load of a movie on his shoulders, to will the damn thing into motion and to make it believable. He acts like someone who knows how to work hard.

The rivalry with his father had a very telling climax. As Michael fell into the career of an actor (he was Karl Malden's junior sidekick in the TV series Streets of San Francisco, starting in 1977), Kirk was well into middle age, painfully aware that his style was going out of fashion. But Kirk had a project he loved, the play adapted from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He believed he was made to play Randle McMurphy, the outlaw who seeks to liberate the lunatic asylum. He took the play to Broadway, but it was less than a success. Then for years he tried to mount a movie. But no one would back him. Close to despair, he passed the property over to Michael, who then contrived to get the picture made, with Saul Zaentz as his partner. The movie made a fortune and won the Oscar for best picture. Its McMurphy, Jack Nicholson, took the Best Actor Oscar, a prize that Kirk Douglas never won. The triumph was public and private, and the father perforce bowed to the son. It would take a very great novelist to uncover the inner feelings of both men at the time.

Michael Douglas has never looked back. He has certainly not produced all of the movies he has been in, though in most cases he has made himself available - or insisted on being heard - as a proven entrepreneurial intelligence with a track record for gauging what the public wants and how a story works. Still, if that sounds too vague or generous, Douglas was an active producer on The China Syndrome, Starman, Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile (in which he created a very funny sexual battle with Kathleen Turner), Black Rain, Flatliners and Radio Flyer.

This is not an unflawed record, but it's vigorous and varied and remarkably free from vanity. Douglas has often taken routine or stooge parts to make a story work (China Syndrome); and in the two Kathleen Turner comedies, as well as in the much darker War of the Roses, also with her, he displayed an unusual appetite for his own sexual humiliation. He easily presents a strong image. But he is also drawn to strains of weakness and neurosis in a protagonist. This, I think, is the key to his remarkable success in the last decade, and to his instinct for what I call "hot-button" movies. By that I mean pictures in which a situation simultaneously appeals to the ordinary person's sense of fantasy and nightmare.

China Syndrome has a touch of that - young reporter gets a great story but the story could be the end of the world. Then think of Fatal Attraction, one of those archetypal movie titles that contains an explosive paradox - an attraction that could kill. Let's agree that the sexual politics of that movie, in which a dutiful family man has a spectacular affair on the side, were very shaky: after all, why does the happily married man want an affair? Still, the psychology and the tension of the mounting trap were overwhelming. One might flinch from the movie's thinking, but there was no way out of its trap. And Douglas caught all the moods: the good father and husband, the adulterer, the great lover, the hounded man, the guy in the trap, the defender of his family. He couldn't have made all those shifts without knowing how the cunning movie worked.

Then there was Wall Street, for which he got an Oscar in what was nearly a supporting role: it's actually a story about the Charlie Sheen character. But Douglas's Gordon Gekko got the streamlined, steel-and-glass look of a tycoon, and he knew the sweet seductive song of "Greed is good!" We knew this was against all we'd ever learnt, yet we felt the logic and accuracy of its interpretation of the Eighties. And Douglas's energy was as attractive as the magnificent efficiency of your average charming fascist. It's worth noting, I think, that Douglas never played Gekko for sympathy or some deeper level of understanding. He put the ambiguity right in our face, and found one of the piercing moments for film in the Eighties.

Gekko was sexy, even if money was his climax. And if Douglas has yet to show much depth or character - as opposed to vibrant presence - as an actor, he is unusually disposed towards things sexual. One cannot quite separate this from his real life. Douglas's marriage has had famous (and much reported) tribulations. He has admitted many affairs, an uncontrollable sexual appetite and a rare sense of danger. This could be a definition of Basic Instinct, a close-to-pulp project which picked up prestige because of his willingness to play the cop. In return he got $14m, probably 14 times the fee for Sharon Stone who is, arguably, the centre or at least the erogenous zone of the film.

Once more, Douglas played a man who was a victim of his own libido and recklessness. There was undeniable chemistry between the stars (Douglas is often good with strong actresses, as the films with Kathleen Turner prove), and there was an inescapable air of sado-masochism in their bonding that was oddly reminiscent of Kirk Douglas's crazed taste for mutilation, wounding and self-abuse in his pictures. There's no need to build up the subtext of Basic Instinct unduly - give naked exploitation and sensationalism their due. But Douglas's detective was a man intrigued by his own capacity for depravity and breakdown. In a rather jolly way, Basic Instinct was a sick picture for people who ought to know better. Call it courage, or appetite, but in matters of wilful nakedness, cheerful orgasm and lip- smacking self-loathing Douglas went a good deal further than the cool studs who are his contemporaries.

Falling Down was not as successful, but it had a fascinating premise. Douglas played a hitherto orderly, controlled man - a military man - who is cracking up. As he disintegrates, so he gives voice and action to many generally buried right-wing urges - against people of colour, welfare freaks, the scum of the city. The picture was never quite sure whether to play that man as crazy or possessed of nightmarish lucidity. It made a mistake in edging towards the former. Granted the latter, Douglas's natural sense of dark comedy might have made something uncommonly subversive. Even so, it was a bold departure, motivated by the feeling that there were millions of people out there ready to identify with the warped protagonist.

Last year's Disclosure wasn't just bad, it was foolish. But it found a wicked, devious way of exploring sexual harassment and it gave Douglas the magnificent set-piece of having to attempt to resist wanton attack from Demi Moore. The scene doesn't really work, I fear; and it can't escape inadvertent comedy. But it came close to capturing the essence of Douglas's talent. So we the audience had the cheap thrill of a semi with Demi while enjoying the moment of taking the slut to law. This philosophy isn't admirable but it is the way movies work now, and make no mistake about how well Michael Douglas knows the self-deception.

IN The American President, too, he comes across as just another victim of circumstance: a decent guy with an impossible job who has a hard time making out with the woman he loves because his schedule is too tight. That old paradox works again: despite all his power and glamour, he just wants to be like us. He wants to be happy. He's very Clintonesque, with that wistful smile that blames us for electing him.

Of course, the movie is very cute and tasteful. There's nothing to offend anyone. It will make a lot of money and it will send plenty of people out of the cinema wondering why America can't find a President like that. Why it doesn't is another, larger question, and one that movies always duck, alas. Yet if anyone ever thinks to make a film about Jack Kennedy's 1,000 days in power, one that includes the public occasions, the inner councils, and the bimbos upstairs, then Michael Douglas is the actor I'd cast. He's camera-ready; he's smart and energetic; God help us, he's presidential.

! 'The American President' (12) opens on Friday.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S FILMS"AT TIMES, bullshit can only be countered with superior bullshit," wrote Norman Mailer, in 1992, praising Oliver Stone's JFK. That view, coming from a veritable authority on bullshit, could describe the cinema's relationship with reality and fact. Mailer favoured the feverish paranoia of Stone's conspiracy theory - flawed and inaccurate though it clearly was - to the establishment apathy of the lone-gunman lobby. Mailer's insight was that cinema's role is to excite rather than explain. If history, as Henry Ford had it, is bunk, then cinematic history is superior bunk.

Power is a subject dear to Hollywood's heart, so its eyes are always glancing towards Washington. Two of the highlights of this autumn's movie season in America will be political pictures: The American President, a romantic comedy in which Michael Douglas plays a widowed President who falls for Annette Bening's lobbyist; and Nixon, a biopic of the late Richard, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The American President is shrewd and funny; and Nixon could be extraordinary, if the superb script is anything to go by. But both toe the party line of presidential films.

The American President presents the sort of wish- fulfilment Washington that is as old as Hollywood. Douglas's Andrew Shepherd (the pastoral name is carefully chosen) is a dream liberal: tough but humane, eloquent yet pragmatic. In a side-swipe at Bill Clinton, he talks of people's thirst for leadership. He outlaws assault weapons and hand- guns. Like Kevin Kline's presidential lookalike who took over the reins in 1993's Dave, Shepherd shows that all America needs is a decent bloke to cut through the red tape. Such plain-speakers have been storming Congress since Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Even before that, a 1932 comedy, The Phantom President, provided an early model for Dave. In 1933's Gabriel Over the White House, a near-death experience causes a President's conversion to visionary leadership.

Amusing though these fantasies are, they can simplify and debase politics, and often flirt with fascism. Hollywood's instincts are less democratic than America's: there have been more coups in American movies than in American history. Wherever you stand on gun-control, you must acknowledge, as Shepherd fails to, that the problem is embedded deep in the American psyche. Like Michael Dukakis (for whom Dave's writer Gary Ross wrote "sound- bites"), Shepherd is an ex-history professor. Yet for all his vaunted expertise on the constitution, he rides roughshod over it.

The White House is often whitewashed by Hollywood biopics. A great President doesn't make for a great film, as John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (1939) and DW Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (1930) show. But some Presidents aren't fitted for reverence. Both Robert Altman's Secret Honor (1984) and the documentary collage, Millhouse (1971), have painted scathing portraits of Richard Nixon. So does the devil get the best movies? Oliver Stone's Nixon may prove that, with a view of Nixon by turns scabrous, hilarious and moving. Stone's Nixon is foul-mouthed, paranoid, clever, Machiavellian, chippy and bitter - a form of beast, it's even suggested, and, in one great line, "the darkness reaching out for the darkness". If Anthony Hopkins carries off the role, this could be a villain of Shakespearian scope. The elemental significance Griffith sought in Lincoln may be fulfilled, in a darker hue, by Nixon.

If Washington has become a closed shop, so has Hollywood's representation of it. The same players recur: there are no term limits on actors playing politicians (if you exclude Ronald Reagan). Charlton Heston was asked whether he had considered going into politics. He replied that he had already been President three times. Franchot Tone had a complete political career in movies: an aide in Gabriel Over the White House; War Secretary in 1936's The Gorgeous Hussy; and the presidency itself in Advise and Consent (1962). Angela Lansbury and Burt Lancaster also spent much of their careers inside Washington's beltway.

The narrowness of the feature form is ill-suited to political debate. It's no coincidence that the best political movies are oblique glances (like Haskell Wexler's docu-drama set around the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, Medium Cool), or detailed TV series, such as Altman's mock- presidential campaign, Tanner '88, and Ken Burns's The Civil War (1989). Otherwise Hollywood's political sallies tend to be as glib and formulaic as the politicians themselves. QC

! 'Nixon' opens next year, when Bloomsbury will also be publishing the annotated screenplay.

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